I recently finished the novel The File on H by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, which I thoroughly enjoyed for its deadpan absurdity. Kadare won the Man Booker International Prize in 2005, which is given to a writer for a body of work rather than a single book. The File on H sends up the paranoia of a Communist country with a surveillance culture. A pair of Irish-American Harvard scholars travel to Albania in the 1930s to research on and record epic singers, and their presence sets off a series of speculations that become treated as facts.
Kadare establishes the tone in the first chapter, an effortless passage of omniscient narration follows information about the scholars’ plans as it trickles down from the Royal Albanian Legation in Washington DC and is progressively distorted as it is passed on to the governor of the city of N____, the scholars’ destination, to his wife, who begins an elaborate romantic fantasy involving one of the scholars, to the rest of the city via innuendo and gossip. Although the passage is focalized through the various characters who receive the information, Kadares’s narrator heightens their increasingly ridiculous responses by reporting the chain of events with dry precision.
The translator’s note (by David Bellos, who worked from the “French version of the Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni”) at the end of the book explains the novel’s genesis from a chance encounter between Kadare and the folklorist Albert B. Lord in 1979. Out of their brief conversation, Kadare spun a fictional version of Lord’s research expedition (with colleague Milman Parry) to the Balkans in the 1930s.
Kadare took the story of the trip in another direction, refashioning it to suit his own preferences. Lord and Parry gathered material from Yugoslavia, primarily, not Albania, and this key change is the source of much of the controversy surrounding the novel. There continues to be some disagreement about the pre-eminence of the epic traditions of some of the Balkan states, and Kadare felt free to privilege his home country in his fictional creation.
As I read about this controversy, I was also following the backlash against The Social Network, or “the Facebook movie,” which seemed to outrage a number of people by not being a documentary after all. This hullaballoo also called to mind the furor over the factuality of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, supposedly based on the life of publisher William Randolph Hearst, and therefore suppressed. But while Welles gave his hero a fictional, if similar name—Charles Foster Kane—David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin don’t bother to disguise the characters in the story, perhaps banking on their source material, the “nonfictionish” The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich.
On the one hand, I believe everything becomes fiction once it’s retold, whether orally or in writing—when it’s processed by a human consciousness and encoded in an intelligible language—even history, even “reality,” whatever that is. It becomes fiction because it’s the expression of a single consciousness limited by the extent of its knowledge and its unique perspective on the world.
On the other hand, there is that niggling guilt that creeps in when one is writing about real people and events, as well as the sense of responsibility to depict them in a truthful or accurate way, at the very least.
The Social Network apparently took great liberties with “what really happened,” in the interest of developing a specific theme in its narrative, in effect using real people and events as fictional devices. William Styron arguably does the same thing in The Confessions of Nat Turner. In Kadare’s case, he had used an actual event, participated in by actual people, as the basis for a fictive set of characters and events. Kadare rewrote history to serve his own fictional, thematic ends, and still managed to court controversy.
The rules of representing historical figures, living or dead, seem very fluid and dependent on prevailing, accepted versions of those figures, and only in contexts that have such prevailing, accepted versions (For instance, would non-Christians object to the representation of Jesus Christ in Nikos Kazantsakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ?). William Shakespeare played to his audience’s and patrons’ views on English history, thereby ensuring the commercial success of his “histories,” no matter the liberties he took with the facts.
There ought to be no trouble in accepting any representation of history, no matter how “factual” its position is, as fiction. And yet we continue to label and thereby distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, romance and history. More than just labeling, there is the frisson that comes with knowing that this actually happened. The aura of factuality can make even the most banal content worth our time, and we tend to seek it out. Writers through the ages have cashed in on this tendency, and readers have blissfully ignored the latent fictiveness of any kind of writing.
Novels routinely come with a disclaimer (“This is a work of fiction. Any similarity…”), precisely to emphasize its fictiveness. On the other hand, history books don’t need to announce their factuality, and any attempt to do so is likely to arouse suspicion. At this point, removing the labels on books is likely to result in utter chaos.
Mark Zuckerberg, the person, was right not to openly attack the film (and book) that portrays him as an insecure, needy douchebag. His reticence (another form of fiction) acknowledges the fictiveness of the film and opens a space for him to create his own fiction of “Mark Zuckerberg.”
Kadare also gets it right in The File on H. His scholars, having lost their research and survived a mob fuelled by misinformation, find themselves worked into the epic poem of the region, their travails already rendered as myth. Kadare recognizes the dangers of official fictions and the importance of being slippery enough to generate counter-fictions.